Lynton Crosby, brought in to run the Tories’ 2015 election campaign on Boris Johnson’s recommendation, is famous for his direct style. But the London mayor rates him as a sharp political operative.
It’s said that David Cameron’s new campaigns chief, the Australian Lynton Crosby, told Boris Johnson he would “cut your effing knees off” if he failed to do what he was told in his mayoral bid back in 2008.
I put this to the mayor – now in his second term – in an interview about Mr Crosby, broadcast on tonight’s Channel 4 News.
It was, he conceded, perfectly possible, that a threat of that sort was made. But it doesn’t seem to have dimmed Mr Johnson’s admiration for the man who’s running the Conservatives’ 2015 election campaign.
He is, the mayor says, a “brilliant political operative. As a candidate, when he walks into the room, your mood lifts a bit… What he will do is take all the candidate’s raw ideas and turn them into a coherent message.
“He used to say: ‘Why are you going on about bicycles so much?’ He said talk about what matters to people.”
Mr Crosby’s no-nonsense style and ruthless discipline is credited with helping Mr Johnson win two consecutive terms as mayor.
“I think it is important in a campaign that the campaign as a whole has a mild degree of contempt for the candidate… They are trying to propel an overweight tourist to the top of a mountain.
“Lynton motivates his colleagues better than anyone else,” he tells me.
So when he, by his own admission, mucked up a campaign speech, he immediately received a text from Mr Crosby with the terse verdict: “crap speech”.
Mr Cameron, who hired Mr Crosby on the mayor’s advice, will hope a similarly blunt approach works wonders on polling day.
But what’s attracting notice now is that softer policies on public health – things like plain packaging for cigarettes and minimum alcohol pricing – have been dropped in favour of harder announcements on welfare, immigration and Europe, something the prime minister used to warn his party to “stop banging on about”.
And Tory MPs like the former GP Sarah Wollaston have asked if there’s a potential conflict of interest between the advice Mr Crosby offers the Conservatives and his lobbying company. He has in the past represented big alcohol and tobacco companies.
He is just as dismissive of critics who say his decision earlier this year to take his old friend and adviser on a trade mission to the United Arab Emirates smacked of cronyism. “I don’t think people are puzzled about this – he runs a big business in London.”
I point out that he only employs 15 people, and that other companies may have liked to join the trip. “Other companies were more than welcome to come,” the mayor insists.
And having Mr Crosby on board is something the Conservative party more broadly should, he says, be delighted about. “I would say he is a very compassionate Conservative.
“I wouldn’t even locate him in the Conservative party at all necessarily – he might be a Liberal for all I know.” A Liberal? Just don’t tell Nick Clegg.